Posts Tagged ‘C.S. Lewis’

“And the Lord granted his prayer”: a reflection on Genesis 25:21 and #ngac19

June 13, 2019

Genesis 25:21: “And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived.”

Rebekah, like Sarah before her, seemed unable to have children. Her husband, Isaac, didn’t presume that because he was God’s chosen one, God would automatically solve this problem—at least apart from Isaac’s own prayers. So Isaac prayed, expecting the Lord to respond. Why not? Isaac’s very name (Hebrew: “He Laughs”) bears witness to the miracle of his own conception and birth. As God asked Isaac’s father, who “fell on his face and laughed” when he heard about Isaac’s imminent birth (Genesis 17:17), “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14)

What about me? Strange as it is to say, I am not, biblically speaking, less called and less chosen than Isaac. In my case, God has called me to be a pastor. He has given me a purpose. I am fulfilling his plan.

If I’m so much like Isaac, however, why do I often presume that I will be successful apart from prayer?

See, I’m convinced that I’ve hardly seen what God can do in my life and ministry—what God wants to do—through prayer! After all, when I’m confronted by the seemingly impossible, I usually give up. Or I pray by rote—heedless that the “great spirit I so lightly invoked” (C.S. Lewis) could move mountains if he wanted to (Matthew 17:20).

But have pity on me! I’m mostly doing what I’ve been shown.

For example, I’m currently at the North Georgia Annual Conference, a gathering of United Methodist church leaders from throughout north Georgia. I sometimes believe that gatherings like these exist to convince us of what we can do apart from God—relying, for example, on the best business and marketing practices that the corporate world has to offer. “Do you want to grow your church? Apply these seven principles. Implement these five practices. Employ these four strategies! They work!” Jesus, by contrast, recommends prayer above all else: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).

Not that we Methodists don’t pray, and not that we don’t have the best of intentions. But in my experience prayer is much harder than principles, practices, and strategies. Yet we treat the really hard thing like an afterthought.

Even today, our bishop prayed (sincerely!) for missionaries on stage to be “anointed with the Holy Spirit”—an excellent petition, especially on the heels of Pentecost Sunday! Yet did any of us in the audience (forgive me for calling us that) wonder whether an actual anointing of the Spirit took place?

And if it did… can I have one, too? Please! 

Speaking of which, is there any problem facing our United Methodist Church, much less our North Georgia Annual Conference, that wouldn’t be solved by a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Why don’t we gather tomorrow on the conference room floor and pray for that? Don’t we believe that a supernatural event like that could happen to us?

Or do we believe that this prayer for anointing was merely one item on the agenda among others—something to check off before lunch break?

And I can anticipate one objection to these words: “Brent, the problem is with you. Your heart’s not in the right place. At the moment that this petition for anointing was being prayed, after all, you were on your phone, reading predictions for tonight’s Warriors-Raptors game!”

Well, that’s true… And I am the problem. I am Romans 7:15 personified!

But isn’t that the point of this post? If I have to depend on myself—in this case, on my ability to “get my heart right”—in order to have an anointing of the Holy Spirit or to experience any other good thing in life or ministry, then I’m doomed! God help me, I can’t make that happen! Through years of bitter experience, I know I can’t! But isn’t the very nature of grace that God will do what we cannot do on our own? “For when I am weak, then I am strong”?

One obstacle in my life and ministry is depending on myself to get things done, rather than trusting in the One who has the power to do even the impossible.

So I’m writing this post to say that I recognize the problem, and I’m going to change—or at least I want to! What about you?

Suffering is no obstacle to joy; it is the necessary means

February 26, 2019

The following are lightly edited notes on Genesis 3:16 from my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

3:16: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing”: The occasion for greatest joy in life—the birth of a child—will now be accompanied by pain and suffering. This is emblematic of life in this fallen world. Joy is impossible to achieve apart from suffering.

Why do I so often forget this?

See, I usually consider suffering an obstacle to joy, rather than its necessary means. Suffering, I believe, disrupts the plans that I’ve made to achieve joy—as if my plans would have succeeded in the first place! But God’s plans for our joy will always succeed, provided we trust him.

But it won’t come easily—because “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life” (Matthew 7:14 KJV).

The very next sentence points to the reason: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” As a result of sin, the relationship between man and woman, husband and wife, is no longer what God intends. The human being to whom we are closest and with whom we have greatest incentive to live in harmony will often strive against us.

And if this is true of our spouse, a flesh-and-blood person whom we can see, touch, and talk to, how much more true is it of our God? “Your desire will be contrary” to our Creator as well, as a necessary consequence of sin.

So what should a loving God do about it?

This quote from C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain is fitting:

When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of the terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artists’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between sexes. How this should be, I do not know: it passes reason to explain why any creatures, not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so prodigious in their Creator’s eyes. It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.[1]

To say the least, God is not a “host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests.” He loves us enough to hurt us, or be willing that we suffer hurt, if it means our ultimate happiness.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1940; 1966), 39-40.

The logic of Romans 8:28: God always answers God’s prayers for us

January 16, 2019

I helped to chaperone a ski retreat to West Virginia last weekend with our church’s youth group. The scripture that we discussed throughout the weekend was Romans 8, among the Bible’s highest and most glorious summits.

Since I haven’t preached on or studied Romans in years, the retreat gave me a new opportunity to reflect more deeply on the letter, on this chapter within it, and on my life’s theme verse, Romans 8:28. Allow me to share the following insight:

In the two verses preceding Romans 8:28, Paul writes,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

To begin with, Paul is offering practical pastoral guidance related to prayer. For instance, when my father was dying of terminal cancer many years ago, and suffering the side effects of aggressive chemotherapy, he confided in me that he was having trouble concentrating in prayer. I told him, of course, that we don’t need chemotherapy to have that problem! Then I quoted these verses: the good news about prayer is that the Holy Spirit helps us where we fall short, “interced[ing] for us with groanings too deep for words.”

This means, as I’ve said before in sermons, that God answers the prayer underneath our prayer—or, as Tim Keller memorably puts it: “God will either give us what we ask for, or what we would have asked for if we knew everything that God knows.” (Please note, however, that Keller isn’t saying that God will give us what we would have asked for… if only we had bothered to ask. Paul’s promise here applies to actual, not hypothetical, prayers.)

But here’s my main point: God does not always give us human beings what we ask for in prayer—because we are finite and fallible; we can’t begin to imagine the impact that God’s answering our prayer will have on everyone else in the world—indeed, how our answered prayer would affect the “greater good” that God is always bringing about. Only God can know all these things. (I’ve blogged before about how the “butterfly effect” applies to our relationship with God.)

So God won’t always answer our prayers. But do you know whose prayers God will answer every single time?

God’s prayers for us!

As strange as it seems, this is what Paul is saying in this text: The Holy Spirit—who is God himself, the Third Person of the Trinity—is praying for us, and the Holy Spirit’s prayers for us—to our Father—will always be answered… affirmatively, perfectly, unfailingly! The Father will always grant the Spirit’s petitions on our behalf.

Does God desire only what’s good for his children? Yes. And so, when the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us” (“prays for us,” NLT), he is praying only for what is in our best interest—at every moment, in every circumstance.

Doesn’t this make logical sense, therefore, of the great promise in Romans 8:28—that in all things God works for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose?

This means, among other things, that no matter what potentially difficult trial we’re enduring at the moment, we are enduring it only because God wills it for us… and God only wills it for our good… because the Holy Spirit is always praying for our good… and the Father always answers the Spirit’s prayers with a resounding “yes.”

By all means, we may be enduring a difficult trial because of sinful choices that we’ve made—or others have made—which harm us. And if those choices had been otherwise, our life would be easier than it is at the moment. God’s “best” for us may be very painful at times. As Paul also says in Romans 8, “we ourselves… groan inwardly,” and “we are being killed all the day long” (vv. 23, 36). But on the other side of every trial is a blessing.

How can it be otherwise, if God’s promises in this passage are true—and the underlying logic holds.

We are blessed not only in spite of the pain we experience but also through the pain. If we are in Christ, we can be sure that the pain is necessary for whatever blessing God wants to give us.

I know we often to struggle with this—for two reasons. First, we believe we are blessed only to the extent that we feel blessed. Feelings are good, of course, but they are an unreliable measure of our blessedness. The life-saving vaccine is incredibly good for us, after all, even though the needle by which it’s administered hurts in the short run.

Not long ago, I was talking to a parishioner who was facing a severe health challenge. After describing the problem, she assured me, “But I’m doing O.K. I’m blessed.” And I thought, “What a mature Christian attitude! That’s exactly right! She is blessed. At this very moment, she may not be experiencing this trial as a blessing—she may not be feeling the blessing—but she can be confident that God is using the experience, ultimately, to bless her.”

But then she said the following: “I mean, I look around and see others who have it so much worse than I do.

My heart sank. We are not blessed only to the extent that other people “have it so much worse” than us! If we are in Christ, we are blessed, period. Full stop.

But this is the second mistake we make when it comes to our blessings: we tend to measure them in comparison to the blessings of others: “I know I’m blessed because I have something that these other people don’t have.”

I struggle with this. I often want someone else’s blessings—in my case, usually some other pastor’s blessings. But why should I expect God to give me—and I’m dreaming big here—the blessings of Joel Osteen (of money, power, prestige, and popularity)? Yet I think, If only I had his blessings, then I would know that I’m successful; then I would know that I’m making a difference; then I would know that people loved me. If I had Joel Osteen’s blessings, then I wouldn’t feel so insecure all the time!

But what do I know? The blessings with which God has blessed Osteen may become curses if they happened to me. In fact, with my ego… I’m sure they would! They would destroy me!

No, I can trust that God has designed my blessings especially for me and for my good, which includes learning that I don’t need worldly measures of success to know that I’m a “highly favored” son of God through adoption into God’s family by faith in Christ.

So what will God’s blessings in my life accomplish? They will enable me, as Paul also says in Romans 8:29, “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” which will inevitably lead to loving Jesus more, enjoying him more, being more satisfied in him, experiencing more of his presence and power.

Granted, I have to want more of Jesus in order for God’s blessings to feel like blessings. I have to want more of Jesus in order to find any lasting happiness in life.

Is that what I want? Because ultimately that’s all God wants to give me.

I’ll leave you with this passage from C.S. Lewis, which continues to haunt me with its truth and beauty:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[1]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Osteen: “Quit losing sleep over something that God ordained”

December 13, 2018

A couple of days ago, in the Twitterverse, Joel Osteen posted the following:

So my question to you, dear readers, is this: Is he wrong?

Many years ago, I would have said yes, he is wrong… emphatically.

In fact, my Christian faith was badly shaken on the morning of October 18, 1989. This was the morning after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay area of California, minutes before Game 3 of the World Series was set to start. The Oakland A’s were playing the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.

That morning, I was driving to work in Atlanta (I was a co-op student at Georgia Tech at the time), listening to a Christian radio station. After a news break describing the earthquake, the radio host said the following: “I have friends out on the West Coast in the Bay Area. I talked to them last night. They’re doing O.K. I just want to thank God for their safety.”

Something within me recoiled: “No!” I thought. “You don’t get to thank God for saving the lives of your friends unless, at the same time, you blame God for not saving the lives of the earthquake’s many victims.” (Wikipedia tells me that 63 people died and 3,757 were injured.)

Even to this day, while my interpretation of the event has changed, the logic is sound. Isn’t it?

If God possesses the power to keep our friends safe during an earthquake—and who could deny that he does and still be within the realm of orthodox Christianity?—then surely, by that same power, he could keep everyone safe. Indeed, every time we pray for the safety of friends and family who are traveling home for Christmas, for examples, or who are facing surgery, or who are dodging IEDs in war zones, we believe that God has the power to intervene in the world to keep our loved ones safe. If God has the power to do so for relatively “small” events, as we perceive them, then he has the power to do so for big events.

If “thanking God” for loved ones’ safety isn’t hot air, and we really mean it, then we must conclude that in cases in which people die, God has reasons for allowing their deaths. In other words, getting back to Osteen’s tweet, “nothing can happen without his permission.” He “ordains” it.

There is far too much scripture to back this up. Read, for instance, Psalm 139, with its high view of God’s sovereignty: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me… [I]n your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Or how about Job 1? Recall that God gives Satan permission (explicitly!) to harm Job—first his family and livestock, later his own health. Again, this affirms Osteen’s tweet: “He [God] may not have sent it,” but God permits Satan to work this evil. Jesus himself acknowledges the constrained but very real power that Satan has over this world when he calls him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “prince of this world” (John 14:30).

Indeed, when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with the gift of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8), Jesus doesn’t respond by saying, “You and I both know you don’t possess that power, Satan,” in which case Satan’s offer wouldn’t be tempting at all. No, Jesus is really tempted because he understands that Satan does possess the power to give him these kingdoms… because God has allowed him some degree of power to influence our physical world. And we see Satan exert this influence in Job 1-2.

Another way of putting it—if it helps—is like this: Just as God allows free but fallen human beings to work great evil in the world, so he also allows free but fallen angelic beings to work great evil in the world. Indeed, it’s not clear where one stops and the other starts, if Paul is right when he says that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12).

Nevertheless, after Satan kills Job’s children, Job responds with these difficult words, which were even used as part of a popular praise-and-worship song 20 years ago (“Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”): “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Even though Satan is the direct agent of harm, God is ultimately responsible for it.

I can anticipate an objection: Yes, but this is Job speaking, not God. What if Job is mistaken?

But even if he were mistaken, we still have to deal with the next verse (emphasis mine): “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” At the very least, in attributing the deaths of Job’s children to God (whether Job is right or wrong to make the attribution), the premise holds: God, the author of a life that none of us deserves and to which none of us is entitled, is permitted to take that life when he pleases (“it is appointed unto men once to die,” Hebrews 9:27—appointed by whom?). Otherwise, Job would be “charging God with wrong” in saying so.

But even in the face of this tragedy, Job can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord” Why? Because he knows the truth of what Paul would later say: that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).

If you’re still not convinced, let’s take a New Testament example, which I’ve discussed before: Paul and his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Notice the divine passive in v. 7: “a thorn was given me.” In other words, the thorn was, in one sense, a gift from God, which he gave him, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited.” This is an example of what C.S. Lewis calls a “severe mercy”: God has done something for Paul that is in his best interests, even though it causes great pain.

But notice that God is not the direct cause of the thorn: Satan is. This “gift from God” is at the same time a “messenger from Satan” sent to “harass” Paul. How can it be both? In this way: What Satan intends for evil, God intends for good. (See Genesis 50:20.) In other words, while Satan wanted to hurt Paul and hamper his ministry with this “thorn” (a symbol for violent persecution, perhaps, or a physical ailment), and God had granted Satan the freedom to do so, God transformed it into something that would be in Paul’s best interests.

Indeed, if Romans 8:28 is true, God does this all the time. And when God permits something far worse than a “thorn”—something that actually kills us, like earthquakes—we can still say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”—because, at the very least, we get heaven and Jesus: “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Anyway, while I understand why you might object to the Bible’s high view of God’s sovereignty—as I did myself when I entered into a long season of spiritual drought during my sophomore year in college—I hope you’ll agree that I’ve represented the Bible’s teaching accurately.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I am deeply comforted by the idea—cliché though it be—that “everything happens for a [God-ordained] reason.” Even at our worst, if we are in Christ we can be sure that our lives are not spiraling out of control. On the contrary, God is working in our best interests.

After all, how many of us cite Jeremiah 29:11 as a favorite verse? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Does God have plans for us or doesn’t he? Or does something like an earthquake, devastating though it be, have the power to derail God’s plans for us?

Heaven forbid!

Otherwise God does not have the power to intervene in the world, and our Lord would be lying when he teaches us to petition our Father with urgency and persistence.

Prayer makes a difference in the world because we believe that God has the power to make a difference in the world. Contemporary Christians, not least of which contemporary Methodists, can be very earthbound and human-centered in our worldview: we can overemphasize what we humans can accomplish at the expense of what God accomplishes for his glory.

I urge us to be more supernatural in our outlook. This starts, I believe, with a robust view of God’s sovereignty and providence.

It starts, well… by believing what Joel Osteen says… because his words reflect the truth of God’s Word.

In fact, my only small quibble with Osteen’s tweet is that he says, “Don’t try to figure it out.” I would nuance it a bit: “Don’t worry about it if you can’t figure it out.” Besides, as one pastor has said, “There may be a thousand reasons God allows something to happen, and you may only see one or two.” Or none, at least on this side of eternity. And that’s O.K. We’re not God.

We’re not God… I like that! The 19-year-old version of myself would have benefited from that helpful reminder.

To remove every “plausible source of false happiness”

September 21, 2018

In case you missed the news a couple of weeks ago, Geoffrey Owens, the actor who played Elvin Tibideaux on The Cosby Show back in the ’80s and ’90s, was photographed while working as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s in Clifton, N.J. The photo was accompanied by unflattering articles on the Fox News website and the U.K.’s Daily Mail.

I was heartened by the reaction to these articles: Many prominent people, including fellow ’80s TV star Justine Bateman in the tweet above (who asked his permission to re-post the grocery store photo), rose to Owens’s defense, accusing the photographer, the news media, and online gawkers everywhere of “job shaming.” The controversy even led to two new TV gigs for Owens: on a Tyler Perry-produced show and on N.C.I.S.

In a New York Times interview today, Owens was asked what advice he had for other struggling “non A-list” actors: “My advice is get a job at Trader Joe’s and have someone take your picture without you knowing it.”

I’m glad he can laugh about it! All’s well that ends well.

Now allow me to get down off my moral high horse: I was one of those online gawkers. First, for some reason, I was surprised by the change in his appearance. As a first-generation viewer of the Cosby Show, shouldn’t “Elvin” remain that 20-something nebbish who married the stronger, more confident Sondra—as if—surprise, surprise—middle age doesn’t happen to all of us? Deeply unfair on my part, I know! Then I felt pity: “How the mighty have fallen! After all, he was on a number-one TV show for years, back when that meant something—back before the prime-time audience splintered into a thousand different pieces.

Worst of all—who am I kidding?—I felt a sense of relief: “While I’ve never been famous, I’ve never made a lot of money, and I’ve never been nearly as successful in my respective career(s) as he has been in his, at least I’m not a cashier at Trader Joe’s! Here’s one more person to whom I can feel superior, at least for the moment.”

But for now, I want to say a word about my second emotion: pity. Why did this photo evoke that emotion within me?

Because I secretly believe, all evidence to the contrary, that assets like fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, money—all of which he surely possessed even as a supporting actor on the number-one sitcom in America—are life’s greatest treasures. Therefore, when I see him today, I see a man who lost everything.

How could I not feel sorry for him? How tragic!

But instead of feeling sorry for him, why not feel sorry for myself? Because my reaction to the image of the present-day Geoffrey Owens proves that I don’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ the way I should.

After all, hasn’t Jesus warned me not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-24)? Hasn’t he warned me to be “rich toward God” rather than rich in possessions (Luke 12:21)? Hasn’t he told me that my greatest treasure by far is found in him (Matthew 13:44-46), and, indeed, that he doesn’t tolerate even a close second in anyone or anything else (Luke 14:26)?

Yet I keep looking for my treasure outside of him. Why?

In my quiet times recently, I’ve been Bible-journaling my way through the minor prophets. I’m on Habakkuk. Just yesterday, I read the following from chapter 2:9, which, in context, is directed to the king of Babylon:

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm!”

How vain the king was to “set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm,” as if it’s safe from the reach of God himself!

Yet am I so different? While I won’t bother telling you what’s inside my particular nest, suffice it to say that I have one, and when it’s empty, I feel angry, insecure, and unsatisfied. Why? Is Jesus not enough for me?

Unless or until he is, I’ll never be as happy in life as I want to be.

C.S. Lewis described my condition well in his book The Problem of Pain:

As St. Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness?[1]

Does God love love me enough to want me to be truly happy? Then I shouldn’t be surprised when he plunders the “nest” I refer to above—when he takes away every “plausible source of false happiness.” Have your way, Lord! “Let me be full; let me empty. Let me have all things; let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

Consider the apostle Paul. He doesn’t say, in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord and doing the apostolic work to which he’s called me.” He counts everything as loss—even his work—in comparison to knowing Christ!

This convicts me. Because I want Jesus and… This “and” makes me miserable.

So I don’t know anything about Geoffrey Owens. But based on the evidence in the photo above, I have absolutely zero reasons to feel sorry for him. For all I know, he has Jesus (and he certainly has the opportunity to have Jesus), in which case he has a treasure far better than fame, popularity, career success, awards, good looks, and money.

God, out of your great love for me, do what’s necessary to make me believe it.

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 94.

Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 2: Hypocritical Christians… like me?

August 15, 2018

To read Part 1 of this series, click here.

In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.

For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:

I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.[1]

I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:

I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.[2]About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”

“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.

See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).

Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?

See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.

Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!

Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:

God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…[3]… as my own experience bears witness.

Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.

Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.

So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”

To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.

I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.

1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.

2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.

3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.

Devotional Podcast #26: “Is Jesus Enough for Us?”

July 14, 2018

Devotional Text: Mark 5:21-43

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, July 14, and after a long break, I’m back with you for Episode Number 26 in my series of podcasts. I apologize for the time away. I’m an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and I was recently appointed to a new church. So over the past two months I’ve had to pack up and leave one town and one church move to another town and church. But now that I’m getting settled in, I hope to bring you these podcast episodes with more regularity.

You’re listening to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, his hit song from 1981. I recorded this directly from the band’s long-playing vinyl record Hard Promises. The song is a happy song, in a way, because the singer sings it on the other side of a long and difficult wait. For the singer, the waiting is finally over—at last—because, you know, he’s finally found true love or whatever. But he wants you to know that waiting for true love was very difficult. In fact, “it’s the hardest part.” “Every day,” he says, “you see one more card”—you don’t see all the cards all at once; you just see one at a time, and you trust—you “take it on faith”—that you’re going to be holding all the right cards before the game is over.

And so it is for us Christians today, and so it was for Jairus in today’s scripture, which comes from Mark 5:21-43. I need to read it because, otherwise, you may not know what I’m talking about… [Read Mark 5:21-43.] 

Jairus is a synagogue ruler in Capernaum, the town that served as Jesus’ home base during his ministry years. That means, among other things, that Jairus is a powerful, wealthy, well-respected member of his community. He is sincerely religious, as we learn in v. 23, where Mark tells us that he “implored Jesus earnestly” to heal his terminally ill daughter. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with a “Jesus Plus” kind of faith?

July 7, 2018

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Last Sunday’s scripture, Mark 5:21-43, is often called a “Markan sandwich.” The top piece of bread is Jairus’s meeting Jesus on the shore to ask him to heal his daughter and Jesus’ accompanying him to his house, in vv. 21-24. This plot line gets interrupted by the hemorrhaging woman. Her story, in vv. 25-34, forms the middle part of the sandwich. Finally, the bottom piece of bread is the resumption and conclusion of Jairus’s story in vv. 35-43. This literary device is characteristic of Mark’s gospel: See Mark 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 3:20-35; 6:6b-31, among many other examples.

Mark tells his story in this way for two reasons: Not only because this is the way these events unfolded, but also because he wants the reader to see the interconnectedness of these two plot lines. As I said last Sunday, everyone, including the hemorrhaging woman, would expect Jesus to fulfill the request of a powerful, wealthy, credentialed, and respectable leader of the community: Jairus seems like a worthy candidate for a healing miracle of Jesus, whereas this ritually unclean poor woman does not.

Jairus is, as far as his fellow Jews are concerned, an unassailably “righteous” man. Mark doesn’t imply for a moment that he’s a hypocrite; he has no ulterior motive in coming to Jesus; his faith, such as it is, is sincere, as v. 23 makes clear: he “implored him earnestly.”

And yet, is Jairus really so different from the woman—social status notwithstanding?

At first, it seems like it. While they’re both desperate for Jesus to perform a healing miracle, the woman has nothing to lose: She’s lost everything already. She’s exhausted all her options. She has nothing in her favor. And even if Jesus heals her, what credit will she deserve? She doesn’t even have the courage to ask Jesus for help. She intends to steal a miracle from him.

Jairus isn’t like her. When he meets Jesus, he still has something working in his favor: time. In other words, he hasn’t lost everything yet because his daughter is still alive. So long as he gets Jesus to his daughter’s bedside before she dies, his labor will not have been in vain. How wise, how clever, how resourceful he will have been! “Well done, Jairus! Once again, you’ve saved the day—with Jesus’ help, of course. Still… apart from your quick wits, your good reputation, and your initiative, your daughter would have died! So, good job!”

I said in my previous post that Jairus’s faith is far from perfect, and we can see why: Until the messenger delivers the fateful news in v. 35, he isn’t trusting completely in Jesus or depending on him completely. He’s also trusting in his favorable circumstances: “As long as my daughter is still alive, it’s not too late! I still have reason for hope!” Jairus’s faith was not in Jesus Alone: it was in Jesus Plus these other things.

Jesus, of course, wants Jairus—and, by extension, us—to have a Jesus Alone kind of faith, not a Jesus Plus kind of faith. He wants to bring Jairus to the same place in which the hemorrhaging woman finds herself: a place of complete dependence on Christ. And so Jesus (that is, God) “rigs” Jairus’s circumstances to make sure this happens! By taking time to heal the hemorrhaging woman, God knows that final thread of Jairus’s misplaced faith—in himself and his circumstances—will be broken: “Why trouble the Teacher any further? Your daughter is dead. There is no longer any hope, Jairus. Give up.”

To this Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” In other words, Jesus says, only believe in me! I am the Lord of all circumstances. I’m the One who looks at the storm raging all around and says, “Peace! Be still!”

Easier said than done! I prefer to have a Jesus Plus faith rather than a Jesus Alone faith. I like being able to depend on myself, my circumstances, my vain belief that “things aren’t as bad as they seem.” In fact, what often passes for “Christian faith” for me is belief in my own power: the thought that I haven’t exhausted all my options; I haven’t worked all the angles; I haven’t called in all my favors—in which case my prayer isn’t that Jesus would save me—even if I mouth those pious words—so much as these favorable circumstances would save me, or these people who are well-disposed to me would save me. While Jesus often saves through circumstances and people—by all means!—I can easily forget that it is Jesus who does the saving; he is the One in whom I need to trust.

And isn’t that the hard part?

Not to worry, though: as I’ve learned from experience, Jesus will often test me until I remember that I have nothing and no one else to depend on except him. This is the “severe mercy” that Jesus shows to Jairus when he learns that his daughter has died. This is God’s discipline, and as painful as it often is, it is good for us!

The words of the author of Hebrews couldn’t be more fitting:

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

I’ve heard no one put it better than C.S. Lewis on this subject. (He uses the word “punishment” for “discipline,” but same difference.)

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[1]

Think of this world as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad. This is classic English understatement, perhaps, but I can only say, Amen!

1. C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

Devotional Podcast #20: “Hard Luck Stories”

March 9, 2018

Hard luck stories… Everybody’s got them. Is that all they are, though? Hard luck? That’s just the way life goes, so get used to it? Not if the many promises in God’s Word are true.

Devotional Text: Psalm 66:10-12

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 9, and this is devotional podcast number 20.

You’re listening to the song “Hard Luck Stories,” written by Richard Thompson and performed by him with his wife Linda on the duo’s 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver.

Here’s why I’m playing this song: We all can tell “hard luck stories” about our lives. Of course, the song warns that the people to whom we tell them may grow weary of hearing them. Nevertheless, we all have them. But what do we make of them? Are they truly the result of “hard luck” and that’s just the way life goes? Not if God’s many promises in scripture are true.

Take this passage from Psalm 66:10-12, for instance. The psalmist says,

For you, O God, have tested us;
you have tried us as silver is tried.
You brought us into the net;
you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
you let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.

This scripture reminds me of the plight of Jacob in Genesis 31 and 32. After 20 years of being away from his family home in the Promised Land—of living and striving alongside Laban, his uncle, father-in-law, and nemesis, God tells Jacob, in chapter 31, verse 3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

And Jacob obeys. He packs up his wives, children, servants, and livestock. He leaves his Uncle Laban. And heads home. Even though doing so, as far as he knows, may cost him his life. The last time he saw his brother, Esau, after all, Esau was hell-bent on murdering him—because Jacob had cheated him out of his inheritance and his blessing. He’s desperately afraid. His fear isn’t alleviated when he sends messengers ahead of him, who report back to him: “We saw your brother, Esau. And good news! He’s coming to greet you. And he’s bringing with him about 400 of his closest friends.”

Jacob, ever the conniver, divides his people and property into two camps and sends one camp on ahead: “That way,” Jacob reasons, “if Esau comes to one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” Genesis 32:8. He also arranges a bribe for Esau—offering him a large share of his livestock and servants. Read the rest of this entry »

Devotional Podcast #13: “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice”

February 9, 2018

In today’s devotional, I reflect briefly on the life of Keith Green, who, along with two of his young children, died in a plane crash in 1982—doing the work of his ministry, naturally. Green’s life, as much as anyone’s, was characterized by the title of his second album, No Compromise.

As I argue in this podcast, Jesus teaches all of us to live lives of “no compromise.”

Devotional Text: Philippians 3:8-11

You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Thursday, February 8, and this is Devotional Podcast number 13.

One of the highlights of my convalescence from the flu this past week was listening to Keith Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise. You’re listening to one song from that album that moved me deeply. It’s called “To Obey Is Better than Sacrifice.” I was reading the liner notes to the album, in which Green offered “special thanks” to various contributors to the album. To his wife, Melody, he included this poignant detail:

Special thanks to… Melody, my wife, (for encouragement, rebuking in love, and having our baby, Josiah David)

This was late 1978. In July 1982, that baby, Josiah, now three, would be dead—along with his little sister Bethany and his father. They were killed in a private plane crash—while Green was conducting business related to his ministry. Keith Green was 28. And just like that, the life of this incredibly talented singer-songwriter—a musician whose first album Bob Dylan hailed as his “all-time favorite”—was snuffed out, along with the lives of his two young children.


In the song I played on Tuesday, “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” which comes from this same album, Green sang the following:

I wanna die and let you give
Your life to me so I might live
And share the hope you gave to me
The love that set me free

Of course, when he sang those lyrics he meant that he wanted to die to his old self—the “old man” that was crucified with Christ, as Paul says in Romans 6.[1] He meant he wanted to lose his life for Christ’s sake so that he might find new, eternal, and abundant life.

In a way, his deepest desire came true in July 1982. He and his two children—and everyone else who died in that plane crash—are at this moment experiencing a kind of life that we can only dream of—a life that’s waiting for all of us who are in Christ on the other side of heaven.

C.S. Lewis once said every deathbed is a monument to a petition that wasn’t granted. What he meant was that nearly every time someone dies, there’s someone else—a family member, a friend, a spouse—praying that that person would be healed, that that person would live.

And I get his point: Unless the Second Coming happens first, God will always answer that prayer by saying “no.” As much as I love Lewis—and no one would accuse me of not loving C.S. Lewis—he doesn’t get it quite right. God only says “no” so that he can say an infinitely deeper “yes,” an eternal “yes”: “You want healing. You’ve got it.” “You want life. You’ll have it more abundantly than ever.” “You want me… Let me hold you in my arms, son… Let me hold you in my arms, daughter. You’re safe now.” This is why Paul says that we Christians “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”[2]

When I preach funerals these days for people who I know were believers, I often ask the congregation to imagine what that person would say to us if he or she were here with us now. And I often point out that I make a living talking God, talking about his Son Jesus, talking about his grace, his love, his glory… It’s what I do. I’m a pastor. But whatever I think I know right now about these things… [scoffs] it’s baby talk compared to what this person who now lives directly in God’s presence knows… It’s baby talk by comparison!

From my perspective, it’s so obvious what our departed loved ones would say… isn’t it? They would say, “Don’t waste your life on lesser things. Dedicate your life—give everything—sacrifice everything if necessary—to pursuing and loving and pleasing and glorifying God and following his Son Jesus wherever he leads. Be willing to say, with the apostle Paul, “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[3]

Would we follow Christ with that kind of dedication if, as with our brother Keith Green, it meant our death within a few short years?

Or do we put heroes of the faith like Green in a special category—his example is too lofty for us. But we don’t get it… There’s just one category in which all of us Christians belong. If we are Christians at all, that means we sign our death warrant; it means we carry our cross—that instrument of torture and death—even if it leads us up that hill to Golgotha—for no servant is greater than his master.

And even if it kills us—physically—we are supposed to be O.K. with that—if that’s what Jesus wants for us.

Is that too extreme? Is that asking too much? If so, maybe being a Christian isn’t for us—because Jesus asks his followers for nothing less!

Green sings: “To obey is better than sacrifice/ I want more than Sundays and Wednesday nights/ Because if you won’t come to me every day/ Don’t bother coming at all.”

I used to think, “Where’s the grace?” Isn’t that so perfectly Methodist of me… to ask that question? Where’s the grace?

How about, instead of asking, “Where’s the grace?” we sinful Christians instead ask ourselves, “Where’s the contrition? Where’s the confession of sin? Where’s the repentance? Lord Jesus, forgive me for failing to give you everything… for failing to come to you every day.”

When we confess our sins and repent, by all means, God’s grace will be there. Why should we expect it a moment before that?

Brothers and sisters, Jesus wants everything that we have. Do we believe that if we give everything, it will be worth it? If not, why not? If so, what’s stopping us?